A good friend of mine recently shared a link from the Real News Network that deserves a response. It was an interview with Chris Hedges criticizing Pope Francis for not being radical enough in his denunciation of capitalism and imperialism. The award-winning journalist gave the impression that the pope should have denounced both as such and offered alternatives.
I was surprised by Hedges’ remarks. That’s because my personal assessment is that the pope actually has done all three. He has been scathing in his denunciation of capitalism; he has denounced colonial imperialism, and has offered clear alternatives to capitalism-as-we-know-it. The pope did so during his” homecoming” trip through Latin America late last summer, during his subsequent six-day trip to the United States, and especially in his landmark encyclical, Laudato Si’ (LS).
On his Latin American tour, Pope Francis’ was quite direct in his denunciation of capitalism and imperial colonialism.
For instance, addressing the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, Francis traced today’s global problems back to their origins in European colonialism beginning in 1492. But he also identified new forms of colonialism exercised through corporations, loan agencies, “free trade” treaties, and imposition of “austerity measures.”
Such actors and policies, he said, subordinate states to outside powers which also exercise control through misguided measures ostensibly aimed at controlling drug trafficking, political corruption, and terrorism. More subtly, external powers colonize, destroy local cultures and foster cultural uniformity through communications monopolies, which the pope described as “ideological colonialism.”
“Let us say NO to forms of colonialism old and new,” he said.
Still in Latin America, the pope went on to criticize capitalism-as-we-know-it as “an invisible thread” connecting problems of world poverty, worker exploitation, landlessness among farmers, homelessness, and destruction of the natural environment. That system imposes the mentality of profit at any price without concern for its impact on displaced peasants and workers or for its destructive effects on “Mother Earth.”
The system, he said “is by now intolerable: farm workers find it intolerable, laborers find it intolerable, communities find it intolerable, peoples find it intolerable … The earth itself – our sister, Mother Earth, as Saint Francis would say – also finds it intolerable.”
For me, all of that represents not only criticism of imperialism, but of the free market system.
Then during his visit to the United States, Pope Francis offered an extremely harsh denunciation of capitalism itself. There he in effect referred to economic system we know as “filthy,” “rotten,” and “putrid.” He called the Wall Street speculators “hypocrites.” Moreover, the pope directly confronted the members of his audience by calling the system they represented “the greatest purveyor of violence” in the world today. And he implied that the politicians seated before him were a bunch of gangsters.
Even Chris Hedges may have missed all of that, because the polite, soft-spoken, and gentle pontiff was a gracious enough guest to say none of those things directly. He did so instead by offering Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King and Thomas Merton as embodiments of our country’s greatest values.
It was Dorothy Day who is remembered as saying, “We need to overthrow . . . this rotten, decadent, putrid industrial capitalist system which breeds such suffering in the whited sepulcher of New York.”
It was King who called the United States itself, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
And it was Thomas Merton, the apostle of non-violence, who classified U.S. politicians and military leaders among the world’s gangsters when he said, “The world is full of great criminals with enormous power, and they are in a death struggle with each other. It is a huge gang battle . . .”
Moreover, Pope Francis did not leave his audience merely reeling from such heavy blows un-complemented by clear systemic alternatives to the filthy rotten arrangement he addressed. Instead, the pontiff called for a deep restructuring of capitalism-as-we-know-it. This would involve turning the present system’s preferential option for the rich precisely on its head, replacing it with his favorite guideline, the “preferential option for the poor.” Even more particularly, restructuring would require a central international legislative body endowed with power to override national economic practices judged to be environmentally unsound.
Both recommendations are found clearly stated in Laudato Si’ which the pope cited in his congressional address (LS 53, 173-175). Surprisingly, both have already been implemented world-wide.
To begin with, the New Deal, the Great Society and (even more so) Europe’s introduction of the welfare state already represent arrangements which forefronted the needs of the working classes and poor. The reform measures were at the very least strong gestures towards economies mixed in favor of the poor rather than of the Wall Street rich. Such reforms demonstrated that another economic order is indeed possible.
As for the world body with power to enforce environmental legislation, the World Trade Organization (WTO) already has it, though perversely in its present form. According to the provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (and of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership), multinational corporations (MNCs) now have the power to sue before the WTO and invalidate U.S. environmental protection standards if those laws can be shown to diminish a corporation’s expected profits.
What the pope is proposing is an international body that turns the WTOs mandate upside-down. The body the pope proposes would have binding power to protect the environment from the depredations of MNCs – i.e. is to eliminate their profits if they result from environmental destruction.
So I respectfully suggest that Chris Hedges is mistaken when he says Pope Francis has pulled his punches. The pontiff has been quite specific in offering alternatives to the system he has so sharply critized. As an honored guest, he gently delivered knock-out blows clearly observable to attentive listeners.
It remains for prophets like Hedges and others to highlight and reinforce them and in this way to advance us towards the Other World Pope Francis would convince skeptics is possible.